No one in the room will ever forget that day.
It was Thursday, February 27. And the Taste of Italy planning team had met for an emergency session to discuss whether or not Taste of Italy 2020 should be postponed from its March 30-31 dates in Houston and New Orleans and its April 2 date in Los Angeles.
At the time, Prowein, the annual wine trade fair in Düsseldorf scheduled for mid-March, hadn’t yet been cancelled. Nor had organizers cancelled Vinitaly, the annual wine trade fair in Verona scheduled for the third week of April.
But panic had already begun to take hold in northern Italy that week as government officials began closing schools and churches in response to the growing spread and threat of the novel coronavirus.
Taste of Italy was still on the books for Monday, March 30 (today) in Houston, Tuesday, March 31 in New Orleans, and Wednesday, April 2 in Los Angeles. The team had just confirmed the participation of celebrate Italian food writer and restaurant critic John Mariani. And it had just received word that the Italian ambassador to the U.S. was considering attending. The wine writer and a food columnist from the Houston Chronicle were slated to speak. A Master Sommelier, the wine director for one of the best wine programs in the U.S., had just been contacted to discuss the seminar he’d be leading.
But there was a palpable sense of dread among the group of planners that day. Would Italians be willing to travel to the U.S.? they wondered. Would large gatherings be banned in Houston? Would a food and wine festival pose a threat to the greater community’s health and safety?
No decision was made that day. But by Monday of the following week, it had been announced that Prowein was cancelled. And even though no one in the room could imagine that a nationwide lockdown would be put into effect in Italy barely a week later, all of us knew it would be irresponsible for us to move forward with the event in which we had all invested so much — including time, money, and hope.
Looking back on the process now, we know we did the right thing by cancelling Taste of Italy. On Monday, March 2, we issued a press release announcing the decision. By the following Monday, Italy would be entirely locked down and travel in and out of the country had been prohibited.
Today, a month later, the U.S. has become the epicenter of the ongoing health crisis and our city, like New Orleans and Los Angeles, is entirely shut down.
Taste of Italy 2020 was to be the sixth annual gathering. It had grown from a small conference room with a handful of Italian winemakers and food producers into a major event with more than 50 exhibitors, hundreds of food products and wines, three seminars, a gala dinner to welcome the presenters and local VIPs, and the first-ever satellite fair in New Orleans.
The Taste of Italy trade fair and food and wine festival was conceived in 2015 to help promote the growing Italian food and wine scene here in Texas. Along the way, it had become a not-to-miss calendar date and major destination for the Italian food and wine trade. As Houston had come to play a leading role in the U.S. food and wine scene, Taste of Italy had grown in tandem with the city’s expanding importance as a culinary tastemaker.
With that spirit in mind, the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South Central is launching an online campaign to highlight the exhibitors that would have been here today in Houston, tomorrow in New Orleans, and Wednesday in Los Angeles. Beginning with the Regione Calabria, one of the event’s main sponsors this year, we will be publishing a series of social media posts featuring producers and their products. We hope you will join us as we remind the world that the Italian food and wine trade will recover from the fallout of the current pandemic.
No one who was in the room that day in late February will ever forget that meeting. And none of us will forget that today, March 30, we would have mounted our biggest and best festival to date.
The IACC is still considering fall dates for Taste of Italy. We hope to have an update available in coming months. In the meantime, we hope that you and your families are at home, safe and healthy. Please stay safe and isolate.